Summer has arrived!
The funeral is finally over. Four days, start to finish. A chaotic time with scores of adults in and out. Men in uniforms. Women in black dresses with somber demeanors. Such a fuss, but nothing compared to the party that just concluded. Drinkers. Talkers. People who couldn’t stop pushing food into their mouths to speak even a few words of kindness for the dearly departed. And, not surprisingly, a few too many children for my taste.
There was mention of the reading of the will. The disposition of the deceased’s possessions. That would include me, I suspect.
I should have gone first. It would have simplified things. Being the one left behind isn’t easy, but I didn’t have a choice in the matter, of course. Parrots can live a hundred years or more. I know this because I’ve heard her children and grandchildren repeat this dire prediction every time they pass by my cage. They shake their heads sadly and speculate out loud, as if I’m dumb as well as mostly mute.
“What will become of Jack?” one will ask.
“I don’t know,” another will answer. “Such a shame. He’s always been a one-person bird.”
“How old is he?”
“No one knows for sure…”
They wouldn’t know. How could they? Even I don’t know the year I was born because such things aren’t measured the way humans attempt to partition and document each and every second of each and every day. In the rainforest where I started my life, all living things understood that there were seasons. I knew without being told the time would come for each young bird to mate and begin a new phase of life. That never happened for me. I was captured before my season of juvenile freedom and foolishness was over.
I like to think that was one reason why I was so angry when I first came to this new world that would become my life. I’d lost everything familiar to me–my family, my group, the tastes, smells, colors, and sounds of the only life I’d ever known and was thrust into a metal cage by brutal hands.
Touch. To go your whole life knowing only the touch of the wind and rain upon your feathers, then suddenly feel a clamp of leather-gloved fingers, musty burlap and wire boundaries curtailing one’s freedom can not be expressed by words in any language.
Those early years in captivity remain in my memory as a white background blurred from time to time by scars of red. Blood – drawn anytime some foolish human came close enough for my razor sharp beak to leave a mark.
The sound of the human voice was a grating, industrial noise that roared in my ears like an engine that never turned off. Music, they say, soothes the savage breast. Not mine. Not at that time. The pet store, that eventually bought me from the merchant who bought me from the trapper, piped in music around the clock. I later learned that the radio belonged to the owner who was slightly deaf. He honestly didn’t realize the radio was still playing when he closed for the night.
I have no way of knowing how long I lived in this prison of harsh light and constant noise. I never slept. I rarely ate. I wanted to go home, and if that wasn’t possible, then I wanted to die.
Neither happened. Instead, I was sold to an unsuspecting family with two young children: Todd, a serious ten-year old with thick glasses, and Delia, who was eight.
The only good part about this move for me was it meant a bigger cage. The children’s father considered himself a bird man. He’d raised pigeons as a boy on a farm in some country I’d never heard of. An exotic parrot seemed the likely next step in bird ownership, naturally. “The pet store guy told me parrots can live a hundred years or more.”
We were a poor mix, to say the least. But the noise level improved. The house was silent at night, for the most part, and best of all, the mother insisted that my cage be covered. Since she couldn’t trust her irresponsible husband or her very young children to do this chore, she would take care of this herself, gingerly, every night. “Sleep well, poor thing,” she’d say.
Poor thing. Since very few human words made sense to me then, I began to think that was my name. Poor thing. The father made sporadic attempts to teach me words. Yes, even the very lame “Polly wannacracker?” I did my best not to encourage him. He eventually gave up – on me, on his family, on his life, in general. He died after a short illness that was only spoken about in whispers. “Polio.” A very bad thing, I came to learn. I wondered if I’d be next. But no, the little girl was its victim.
Delia left us for what seemed like a very long time. Her mother still covered my cage at night, but I was no longer, “Poor thing.” I was a habit. One she probably resented, but she seemed too weary to even muster the energy it took to be resentful.
The silence around me grew as the family’s possessions thinned out, one by one. I was certain I’d be next to go, but then the unexpected happened. The little girl came home. She couldn’t walk at first, so they converted “my” room–the parlor–on the first floor of the house into a place for her to stay. The sofa disappeared, traded, I assumed, for a skinny bed made of metal.
I had a roommate.
Delia was the one who officially named me. Prior to this, I’d been simply “the bird.” But Delia told her mother the second morning she was home, “He looks like a Jack to me. We’ll call him Captain Jack.” I liked the name, but nobody bothered with the title.
From that night on, when she closed her eyes, instead of falling straight to sleep, she’d tell me a story about how Captain Jack, a brave and virtuous pirate–virtuous? I wondered the same thing, but since she didn’t understand my squawks at that time, I wasn’t able to ask. Anyway, in various renditions of the same basic theme, the esteemed captain happened across a mean and bothersome witch who turned him into a bright green parrot with red markings and coal black eyes. All because he refused to tell her he loved her. “He couldn’t lie,” Delia stated with such gravity it seemed the inescapable truth.
Each night, she would add another chapter to Captain Jack’s adventurous life. As her strength returned, she’d talk about other things, too. Her fear that her mother would have to go to work. Mothers didn’t do that, but they were terribly poor now that her father had died. And there were hospital bills. So many.
Until that time, I’d acquired words that humans made a pointed effort to teach me. I gave into their coaching partly for the treats they proffered, and in part because I was bored. Did these rote “Hello,” “Hi, Jack” or “Pretty bird” make sense to me? No. Of course, not. But, listening to Delia was different. For one thing, her delivery was slow, slightly breathless and very deliberate. And she spoke to me as though I were capable of understanding everything she said. That’s how I came to learn that each of the harsh, guttural sounds that had been around me all those years were actually words, with meaning. That revelation changed everything. As odd as it sounds, this was the moment I ceased to be a bird–not physically, of course, but in my mind that last remaining connection to the distant, shadowy memories imprinted on my DNA slipped away. I remained a bird, but I became–then and forever–Delia’s bird. She was my family, her flock would be my flock. I could never return to my old world, so, instead, I would go forward. With her.
Delia. She was so many things to so many people: daughter, sister, friend, woman, warrior, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. Transitory labels, at best. The one that never changed was: Jack’s owner.
Her life probably wasn’t all that special or unique. I’ve been privy to many such stories over the years–first, when school chums came to spend the night with the young girl who had recovered from her illness and its lingering effect with such resolute determination and good cheer that people never saw the crutches, the cane, the limp. I was happy to witness each stage of recovery. But each new triumph took her further from the sick room–my parlor.
As if sensing the impact this physical separation would have on me, Delia arranged for surrogates. First, a dog. An old dog because the thought was an old dog wouldn’t try to eat me. He didn’t. But he wasn’t much company, either. All he did was sleep. And eat. I don’t know what they fed him, but he had terrible gas.
Later, she procured a television, which Delia mistakenly thought I might enjoy. To my surprise, I did become rather attached to the folly played out daily on General Hospital, but I’d rather not talk about it. Those old friends left me, too, you know.
One thing I’ve come to understand about the human species is its capacity for selective blindness. For years, Delia chose to pretend her mother was a strong woman. But Mama was not. She married the first man who asked her. Todd, who was two years Delia’s senior, tried his best to disappear any time the new father came into the room. Delia played the role of peacemaker–except where I was concerned. The new father called me dirty, disease-infested, a waste of birdseed. Delia turned into a warrior, as inflexible as the bars of my cage–which had turned into a refuge whenever Delia wasn’t around.
Lucky for all of us, the second father dropped dead one afternoon while pushing the lawn mower in the back yard. I won’t say how long Delia’s mother stood at the window and stared outside without moving or calling for help, but I can say she waited long enough. His money was a kindness the man himself was incapable of giving. It kept the roof over our heads and paid for both Delia and Todd to go to college.
College was a bleak time for me–and the mother. “You miss her, too. Don’t you, poor thing?” Yes. Yes, I did, and I molted to prove it.
But college took less time than usual because Delia fell in love. And married impulsively. A man I truly loathed. The words I longed to be able to say stuck in my craw, bitter tasting and caustic. “Why, Delia? Why him? He doesn’t respect you. He thinks you’re handicapped. He acts like he did you a favor, when, in fact, he doesn’t deserve your sweetness, your grace.”
The divorce was almost as swift as the wedding, but Delia’s grief lingered. So many nights she’d sit beside my cage and tell me how devastated she felt, how stupid, how distrustful of her ability to read people. Always, I paced my perch, angry and frustrated because I couldn’t make her see how wonderful she was. How unique and gifted. I have the vocabulary but I lack the ability to have the words make sense. My curse, I’ve come to understand, is to observe without comment.
But that doesn’t mean I’m mute. Oh, no. Once Delia began dating again, I did my best to influence her choices. We called it the Squawk Rating System. A frenzied ruckus meant jerk alert. Giving the new contender the silent treatment meant: “Why bother?” But a feathers-forward, head tilted to the right “Hello there, big boy” was a clear sign that this one had potential. That’s how we met Andrew.
Wisely, he courted us both. He brought her candy. He brought me sunflower seeds. Unsalted, of course. No bloody fingers for Andrew.
Their marriage wasn’t perfect, but it was worth fighting for. Three summers later on a bright, fragrant morning in May Delia gave birth to a baby girl. A tiny thing with wisdom in her eyes. But the toll on Delia’s body had been extreme. There would be no more children, she told me, tears streaming down her pale cheeks.
But the sadness passed quickly because Andrew’s job kept the family on the move. North, south, east and west. Places Delia would point out to me on a map, but I never bothered to learn their names. What did it matter when my world remained essentially the same? The one place that truly sticks out above the rest was the beach house. For two months every summer, no matter where we were living in the country, Delia would move us all, lock, stock and animals, to the airy white cabin on Michigan’s northern shore. Poor Andrew missed out on so much, but when he was present, the family seemed whole, exhilarated and truly happy.
Andrew was a good man, if somewhat simple. Smart in terms of his work–some sort of engineering, Delia claimed, but he never looked too deeply beyond the obvious. For example, one day he decided I should have a companion. A bird friend. Delia vetoed the idea–one more animal in the growing menagerie meant one more animal for her to feed and clean up after. But Andrew was determined, so one day he brought us Chloe–my potential mate.
Unfortunately, she was actually a male. A young male. Procured as a hatchling, which made him fairly docile. But he was easily upset and he expressed his frustration by plucking out all his pretty feathers. No one has ever said a bald parrot is an attractive parrot. Baby Girl wouldn’t even look at him. If she did, she’d break into tears. One morning, without any warning, “Chloe” toppled off the center bar in our cage and fell to the bottom screen, dead as the drowned flies floating in our water container. For a while I thought the whole transgender humiliation killed him, but it turned out he’d been exposed to a highly contagious avian virus.
It nearly got me, too, but Delia nursed me through – an eye dropper at a time.
The busy school years seemed to fly by as we watched our little girl flourish and grow to adulthood.
These times were punctuated by losses, of course. The old mother went first, poor thing. Followed much too quickly by Todd, Delia’s brother. I wish I could say he forgave me for nipping his finger when he was little, but I don’t think he did. His death hit Delia hard. In part because she’d just lost her mother, in part because he was so young. Delia told me he died from a disease they called Gay. Humans don’t make sense. You come to understand that after awhile. And they don’t age well, either.
As I approached middle age in bird years, my humans were slipping into their twilight. After Andrew retired, he and Delia were as happy as I’d ever seen them. They did everything together. They threw themselves–and a great deal of money–into giving Baby Girl the most dazzling wedding possible. Since they’d traveled so much in their working years, neither seemed inclined to go anywhere–except to the beach house. Summers were filled with grandchildren, now. Baby Girl was a much healthier version of her mother. She popped out three little angels before anyone could get over marveling at the last. The girls loved their Nana and Papa, and, to my surprise, they held me in awe. I never once had to bite any of them. I can’t say the same for their friends.
Gradually, small health concerns became major health woes. There were operations, pacemakers, pill boxes on every table. I’d watch them nap, occasionally dozing off mid-sentence. Their little arguments usually wound up making them laugh – at each other and themselves. Always, there was love and forgiveness, hands holding hands as they made their way up the stairs to bed. Slowly. Very slowly.
I knew Andrew was gone before she even awoke that morning. His spirit left in a loud whoosh, down the stairs and out the door – in a hurry to move on. I knew I would miss him, but not nearly as much as she would. If not for the grandchildren–and me–I don’t think Delia would have found the will to stick around. For months, she sat on the pretty padded chair a few feet from my perch and looked out the window, never speaking. I began to think I’d never hear her voice again. So, despite my physical limitations, I started telling her a story about a brave and valiant pirate girl who was taken hostage by an evil witch. What I couldn’t convey in words, I tried to make up for with affection. I only left her shoulder when she held out her arm to create a bridge straight into my cage each night.
Did my words pull her back from that murky shore where her mate now resided? I doubt it. Quite frankly, I think she decided she couldn’t trust anyone else to take care of me. Baby Girl was a busy professional with three teenage daughters. Their comings and goings were enough to make anyone dizzy. Oh, they might have remembered to feed me, but could they be counted on to talk to me? Cover me up from the draft at night? Challenge my vocabulary?
Obviously, Delia didn’t believe so. She kept breathing. Long enough to become a great-grandmother, to witness two more beautiful, elaborate weddings, to welcome a new, young family into her home. Just temporarily, her youngest granddaughter told everyone. “Just until Nana doesn’t need me anymore.”
We all knew what that meant–even though she didn’t mean it that way. That girl reminds me a great deal of her grandfather.
My beautiful Delia did her best not to die, but age wears on the body–and hers was fragile from the polio. The granddaughter bought her a splendid wheelchair. They put a bed in the front parlor–my room, just as her mother once did for her. She was my companion again, day and night, only much of the time, her spirit wandered. She would remember the early days, but not the recent. She’d forget the face of her beloved granddaughter. The poor girl would leave in tears.
But she never forgot Jack.
“Captain, I really think it’s time for me to go, don’t you?” she asked. Four days ago.
What could I say?
“Good-bye, me pretty,” I said, with my best pirate accent. I’d seen my share of movies over the years.
She closed her eyes and her breathing stopped, but her spirit didn’t leave right away. It danced about the room, touching mementos, smiling at a photo or two, then the shimmering light that humans don’t seem capable of seeing stopped at my cage. For a moment, I thought she was going to open the door of my cage. Freedom. But no. Instead, she smiled and kissed my beak. “Journey on without me, dear friend. But I’ll be waiting for you.”
Parrots live a hundred years or more, Delia’s father had claimed.
“In the wild,” someone at the wake had stressed. “Their lifespan is considerably shorter in captivity. This one probably won’t last long, now.”
Jack wished his beloved had known that. Perhaps she had. If he closed his eyes and looked hard enough, he could almost see her–watching from the deck of a pirate ship poised to take them off on their next great adventure.
© Copyright 2011 Debra Salonen
…Lunch with Dickie? It sounded like a title to another book. Mystery? Fantasy? Romance? She was both tempted and terrified. So many of her dreams had turned out far different from what she’d imagined. Her marriage, for one. “I’ve thought about you often over the years, Dickie. I have so many questions. Is your mother still alive? What do you do for a living? Are you married? Do you have kids? Where did–“
He interrupted her with a good-natured, “Whoa. I tried speed dating once and even it was slower than this. Are you sure you’re an editor and not a police interrogator?”
He knew what she did for a living.
As did anyone who read her published bio.
“I’d planned to cover all this at lunch tomorrow. Would you settle for a condensed synopsis tonight?”
A little editor humor. Clever and smart. She’d always been a sucker for quick-witted men. “Yes.”
“Okay. First, my mother died of breast cancer when I was fourteen. We might have had her longer if she’d had health insurance, but the working poor usually don’t. Her death sealed my fate, in a way.”
Abby didn’t know what that meant, but she mumbled, “I’m so sorry.”
“Me, too. I loved her very much. Luckily, Latisha and her husband took me in. He’s a successful plastic surgeon…retired, now. They lived in White Plains at the time, and both their children attended a private school. Latisha enrolled me, too. I call this my second life-changing gift. I studied hard, earned some scholarships and wound up at Harvard.”
“Wow,” she exclaimed. “Good for you, Dickie—I mean, Richard.”
“Dickie,” he repeated, his tone wistful. “No one has called me that for a long time. What about you, Abigail? What little I know is from your online bio and the paragraph in the back of your book. Congratulations, by the way. I’m honored to know a real live author.”
“A one-book-wonder kind of author,” she corrected. “I’m an editor by trade and inclination. My Christmas Angel was a fluke. A memory that stayed in my head until I finally put it on paper and set it free.” Embarrassment heated her cheeks. “I was at the right place at the right time. I take it you’ve read the book?”
“Yes. Last month at Thanksgiving. My niece bought a copy for her daughter and couldn’t help noticing some similarities to the story I tell of my most memorable Christmas.” He laughed. “Actually, her exact words were, ‘Uncle Richard, some lady stole your story. You should sue her.'”
The thought had crossed Abby’s mind, too, but her publisher had assured her nobody could copyright an idea. “You remembered that night? Enough to tell people about it?”
“Yes, although my version is a little different. My hardworking mom couldn’t afford to pass up the tips at the local diner on Christmas Eve, so, even though it was my sixth birthday, she sent me off with a Good Samaritan white social worker to celebrate with strangers at a strange house.”
“Oh, my,” Abby said. “I never thought how scared you must have been.”
“I wasn’t scared. Not after I met you.”
“You. A little girl with long braids and a big heart who gave me a gift that changed my life.”
She swallowed hard. “I hate to break this to you, Dickie, but I didn’t give you that bear. My mother did.”
“I know, Abigail. I wasn’t stupid, just poor. And I could see how much you wanted it, which, not surprisingly, made it all the more special. As I tell my grandnieces and nephews, that bear was the first gift I ever received from someone outside my immediate family. It became my most treasured possession. I slept with it every night until I went to college. It went with me, then, too, but never left my drawer.”
“I thought so.”
There was a slight pause. She sensed he was choosing his words with care. “I still have him, of course. On a shelf in my office. He’s a little worse for wear, but obviously well-loved and when I look at him I’m reminded of your true gift.”
Abby couldn’t find the breath to ask.
“That night, you saw me, Abigail. Not some poor little black kid your father tolerated and your mother felt an obligation to feed. For the first time in my life, I felt special. Unique. In your eyes, I was a Christmas angel. If you and God believed that, then anything in the world was possible. Can you imagine what a gift unfettered hope could be for a child from the projects?”
Her throat was tight with unshed tears. “No,” she whispered, intending to set the record straight. How could he possibly attribute his grace and goodness to her when he’d shared those gifts with her–not the other way around?